As super powered mutants, Marvel Comics' X-Men are hated and feared by the very people they've sworn to protect. As a result they must operate differently than other super teams. Wolverine's east coast branch of the team still fights villains and tries to save the world, but these days they're more concerned with protecting and training the next generation of mutants. Cyclops' west coast faction of the X-Men routinely battles threats that groups like the Avengers would face. They do so with one caveat: if anyone tries to harm or oppress mutants they'll face the wrath of Cyclops' team.
Cyclops' heroic and intimidating group is composed of nine extremely powerful mutants whose adventures are documented every month by writer Kieron Gillen in the pages of "Uncanny X-Men." This April, Cyclops and his X-Men find themselves in conflict with Captain America and the Avengers when Marvel's "Avengers vs. X-Men" event storyline kicks off. That conflict will be over how best to handle the cosmic threat of the Phoenix, but Gillen has been building a case for why the X-Men and the Avengers must ultimately fight over the past few months. CBR News spoke with the writer about his current and upcoming plans for "Uncanny X-Men."
When Gillen kicked off this new volume of "Uncanny X-Men" he brought together Cyclops; Storm; Emma Frost; Magneto; Namor; Colossus who had recently become the Juggernaut, the powerful avatar of the evil entity known as Cytorrak; Colossus' sister Magick; the mutant messiah Hope; and the robotic being known as Danger to form his "Extinction Team." In the series' first arc Emma Frost sustained a serious injury, and while she recuperates Psylocke has taken her place in the field.
"I wanted to take Emma off the table for a couple of reasons. First was the physicality of it. We're a book where if someone gets seriously hurt they're going to spend some time recuperating. So she's temporarily off the team and she was their telepath," Gillen told CBR News. "One of the things we X-writers talk about is how we want a natural connectivity between our books. 'Uncanny X-Force' had been kind of its own thing for its entire run, but with 'The Dark Angel Saga' there were all these ideas that were developed that we can fold back into our books. Jason Aaron has been doing some things with characters over in 'Wolverine & the X-Men' and I wanted to explore 'Tabula Rasa,' the strange land that was created in the middle of Montana during 'The Dark Angel Saga.' That idea really excited me. Plus we have Psylocke's emotional attachment to the events that occurred at Tabula Rasa and that led to her being brought in as well. There were all these necessary things that brought our British ninja into this situation."
Gillen has enjoyed writing Psylocke and feels the character fit organically into the stories he's telling in "Uncanny X-Men." "If you think about it she's also a character in an emotionally extreme situation because she can't really tell anyone about what happened and this is literally hours after 'The Dark Angel Saga.' Basically she went with the team to drop Angel off at their X-Cave. Then she went back to Utopia and was like, 'Okay there's this place, Tabula Rasa, I don't know what caused it, but we've really got to go in and make sure people are okay.' This is her basically tidying up X-Force's mess and it fits her job as one of Cyclops' security personnel. When we placed her on Scott's side this was one of the things we were thinking of," Gillen explained. "So it's all very natural because she's got both mental and physical abilities. There's all these different telepaths among the X-Men, but she's the most physical of them. Plus I got to write a real interesting relationship between her and Magneto since he's the only one of Scott's X-Men who knows about X-Force. I'm also looking forward to using Psylocke in 'AvX' as well."
The current "Tabula Rasa" arc of "Uncanny X-Men" began in issue #5 and concludes in next week's #8. Thus far the team has journeyed to the strange land that was created when for one day time was sped up by one million years. They were hunting for humans who accidentally stumbled into the area and during that hunt several X-Men encountered the last two members of a race of beings known as the Apex, the Savage, and the Immortal Man. In "Uncanny X-Men" #7, in stores now, the X-Men helped the Savage end the Immortal Man's destructive attempt to revive the Apex.
"Our first arc was one really big story. It was, 'Here is Sinister, he is messing with all of these people and now the X-Men are going to try and stop him.' With 'Tabula Rasa' I wanted to do completely the opposite. There's like four or five plots going on. One involves the Apex. Then there's the subplot with Magick being kidnapped and Colossus going after her. Then we have Namor and Hope exploring the aquatic areas of Tabula Rasa," Gillen said. "Basically I wanted to separate the team and allow them to bump up against each other in smaller groups. When you've got a team of nine there's some limit to what you can do with characterization, so I wanted to break things down and focus on smaller dynamics."
In "Uncanny X-Men" #8, on sale March 7th, Gillen brings the Tabula Rasa arc to a close by wrapping up the plots involving Magick and Colossus and Hope and Namor. "'Tabula Rasa' is basically many different plots and emotional tones all coming together. It kind of feels like a rain forest in that way," the writer said. "I originally planned for the story to just be three issues, but the third issue was incredibly packed and it didn't feel right. So I ended up expanding it a bit more to make it work."
In "Uncanny X-Men" #9, on sale April 11, Gillen kicks off a two-part story about a jail break on the Peak, the orbiting headquarters of S.W.O.R.D., a clandestine agency charged with protecting the Earth from intergalactic threats. The Peak housed some of the most dangerous and powerful criminals in the galaxy so the X-Men will need help rounding all the escapees up. That help will come in the form of their future adversaries, the Avengers.
"We get an introduction to the complete lunacy happening on the Peak where there are all these intergalactic prisoners. Some of them are basically your standard criminals and some of them are world threatening menaces. So basically, that powder keg blows up and the criminals that arrive on Earth are, inevitably, the worst ones and they're distributed across several places on the globe. And each is an enormous threat. That's too big of an operation for the X-Men to carry out by themselves. It's too big for the Avengers as well. So, being sensible people in difficult times, [they] do the obvious and pool their forces," Gillen remarked. "It's two issues and we approach it in the same way I handle Juggernaut's attack in issue #543, where I'm showing a mass of different stories in a really compressed burst of ideas way. We initiate our story and then we go leaping off immediately. This is a year's worth of stories in two issues."
The architect of the Peak jail break is the master mechanical manipulator known as UNIT, a being that Gillen introduced in his 2009 "S.W.O.R.D." series. "There's a bunch of world threatening villains in this story, but UNIT is relatively low-key. He's in Canada and talking to some civilians and let's just say that doesn't go well," Gillen said with a laugh. "I think readers who are familiar with UNIT won't be surprised to learn that he caused the jail break. I also think that readers who know UNIT won't be surprised to learn that nobody else knows that he caused the jail break. So he's done this for a reason. The question is why on Earth has he chosen to do this? We'll find out in the months ahead. After I introduced him in S.W.O.R.D. I wanted to drop him into the Marvel Universe and see where he goes."
While UNIT plots his machinations a handful of new and established intergalactic menaces will be keeping the X-Men and the Avengers busy. "We've got one race that artist Carlos Pacheco designed and I worked out a background for. It's kind of a mathematical riff on the Lovecraftian Many Angled Ones. They're called The Acute Infection," Gillen explained. "We've also got Dire Wraiths, Terminus, and a Makluan, the race of dragon-like aliens that Fin Fang Foom is part of. The story also features the return of Voidian the Destroyer a guy I invented in 'Beta Ray Bill: God Hunter,' my first mini for Marvel. Basically I wanted to throw all sorts of different ideas at the page. That Makluan I mentioned? He's a pirate Makluan! The idea is kind of Fin Fang Foom as a space pirate."
The X-Men and the Avengers teaming up to battle these alien criminals allows Gillen to take one last look at the relationship and differences between the two teams before everything changes in April's "Avengers Vs. X-Men." "We know that 'AvX' is coming up but hypothetically someone's first comic could have been the debut issue of this latest volume of 'Uncanny X-Men.' So I wanted to introduce the concept of the Avengers before the conflict happened. Yes 'The Avengers' is an enormous film happening this year, but I wanted to properly introduce the characters and talk about the world they're in," Gillen remarked. "So this was a chance to show two super hero teams that are both genuinely trying to save the world and also show the differences between them. So we introduce you to these heroes and foreshadow what the upcoming problem is. I feel a lot of what I did in 'Uncanny X-Men' even before we launched this latest volume was about delineating the characters on this team and why they might go to war with the Avengers.
"Some people are asking, 'Why would the Avengers and X-Men fight? It doesn't make sense,'" Gillen continued. "I've actually spent the last two years making it kind of logical for you to expect an X-Men-Avengers fight. The Peak arc is the climax of that. It's basically here are these two groups together for one last gig before it all goes wrong."
Everything goes wrong in "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1, on sale April 4th. On April 25th Gillen begins to examine the fall out from that in "Uncanny X-Men" #11, which kicks off the series' "AvX" tie-in. Since the writer has been working to foreshadow "Avengers Vs. X-Men" and have it make sense for both teams, Gillen was able to use the tie-in story to further many of the tales he's been telling in "Uncanny X-Men."
"I begin things by looking at Scott's immediate response to the thing that causes 'AvX.' My first issue has a 'Do you remember where you were when JFK got shot?' feel to it. So the theme and question is, 'Where were you when 'AvX' kicked off?' That's the kind of mood I'm going for there. There's a feel that this is important and changes everything. It kind of harkens back to the first issue in that it ends with -- spoilers! -- a press release," Gillen said with a laugh. "Plus, in the middle of it all we've got a really big Juggernaut versus Red Hulk fight which I also use as a way to move the Juggernaut/Colossus-Magick plot to the next stage. Some big things are going to happen to Colossus in the next few issues; especially when he goes to find his sister in this current arc and after he confronts the aliens and UNIT in the next one. So he's not in a great position when he goes up against Red Hulk, which means while this fight is both spectacular and punchy it's also a really emotional thing for Colossus. I'm trying to embrace both spectacle and emotion."
"'AvX' is divided into acts," Gillen continued. "So each issue of the tie-in is kind of dovetailing the events of the mini-series and exploring things further. After my initial issues we look at things from a different perspective, Mister Sinister's. He's the guy who told Hope about the Phoenix so it's possible that he might somehow have his fingers in the pie that is 'AvX.' Plus Sinister, being very full of himself, probably believes that 'AvX' is all about him. In his mind the book should be 'Mister Sinister Presents: Avengers Vs. X-Men.' That's Mister Sinister for you and he's a big part of my 'AvX' issues."
Gillen finds using the events of a big story to inform and further your ongoing story is the most effective and fun way to tie into a big event like "Avengers Vs. X-Men." "These tie-ins won't derail my story. This is my story. I knew 'AvX' was coming so what happens in it is absolutely fundamentally important to my 'Uncanny' run," the writer remarked. "Really that's the only way to do a crossover for me, because anything else disrupts the book for several issues. So I want to make these issues really important and with a little preparation it's not too hard a thing to do."
These days two artists help Gillen prepare his "Uncanny X-Men" stories: One is Greg Land, who is penciling the current "Tabula Rasa" arc and the first issue of the "AvX" tie-in. The other is Carlos Pacheco who drew the first arc of this latest volume of "Uncanny X-Men" and will draw the alien jail break story in "Uncanny X-Men" #9-10. Gillen has been working with both artists long enough to cater his stories to their strengths.
"Greg is fantastical. He's a photo realist and draws particularly glamorous characters. So he works best with stories involving smaller groups. That's why he drew 'Tabula Rasa' because I split the team into smaller sections. Glamour is definitely a good word for the types of stories he does best," Gillen said. "Carlos does scale. The first art I remember seeing from him was 'Avengers Forever' which had this epic scale to it. He does a great job with the nine-member Extinction Team and for this upcoming arc he's drawing the Avengers as well, who are basically the same size. Plus we got hordes of aliens and often times Carlos will have to draw all these characters in one panel. So we're making him work on the arc, but he's drawing it all and drawing it beautifully."
The "AvX" tie-ins of "Uncanny X-Men" also unites Gillen with several other artistic collaborators and when the crossover is finished the writer hopes readers will sit back and reread his entire "Uncanny X-Men" run as one big story. "In issue #5 a lot of people noted the conversation between Captain America and Scott and thought, 'Obviously they're foreshadowing 'AvX.'' The truth of the matter is, though, I've been foreshadowing 'AvX' for almost two years worth of issues now. If anybody goes back and rereads everything I've done they'll be able to spot that. I like writing comics that can be reread. So I'm looking forward to when 'AvX' is over and it will seem like everything has fallen into place. People will be able to go back and read through my entire run and see how it holds together as this whole pitch.
"Also, after the relaunch I've been focusing on villains a lot more than most people would. I think that's an area we need to develop more in this decade. So putting some more meat on the villains' bones is quite important and I'm using these villains to talk about the X-Men," Gillen continued. "That's why every villain they've encountered so far is actually the last member of their species. So they're like the X-Men in that they're about to be made extinct. UNIT is the last of his species. The Phalanx was the last of his group. The Apex are the only two surviving members of their species. And of course Sinister is both the first and last member of his species. So I can ask questions like which one of these characters is most like the mutants? What could mutants become? That's my approach to the book. I think it's an unusual method for generating insight."
"Uncanny X-Men" #8 is on sale March 7.